Historians are likely to view the eight weeks after 15 February 2023 as the point at which the first serious attempt, for several centuries, to achieve Scottish independence, ended in failure. This might be termed the 'Triple S' strategy: dominated by Salmond, Sturgeon and Swinney. It peaked at the end of 2014, when 45% of voters chose independence and in the following spring General Election, when the Labour Party was almost annihilated, a drubbing from which it has not yet recovered.
The years following produced a series of electoral victories but little progress was being made on the key demand of independence. This failure was made more acute by the external factors which were particularly propitious: England voting to the leave the EU and drag Scotland along, and the rise to Prime Minister of Boris Johnson, an individual who personified English arrogance.
Before studying the failure of the latter years, it is worth noting the largely unexpected success of the earlier ones. David Cameron was relaxed about agreeing to a referendum, believing it would be won comfortably and put the very thought of independence back in its box for years to come. (His optimism two years later was even more misplaced.) That the referendum was a 'damn close run thing' was overwhelmingly due to Alex Salmond's personality and political skill. A campaign lasting nearly 18 months could easily have peaked too soon or spluttered along; it did neither. Even if it ended in defeat, it was clear that independence was now accepted as a possible alternative for Scotland. The failure was due mainly to the SNP's inability to convince enough voters of the details; while the vision convinced hundreds of thousands, the small print failed for many of the rest. It still does.
Why did support for independence fail to kick on, as so many anticipated? There were two clear failures, one intellectual and the other administrative, both masked by Nicola Sturgeon's personal popularity. The intellectual one is harder for independence supporters to concede. The problems highlighted by the No campaign were never seriously addressed. Accepting intellectual failure is nearly as difficult for Scots as admitting that we are no longer much good at football. The intellectual ferment of 2014 had produced far too little of lasting substance. To be asked to accept a second failure – even when confronted with a mountain of evidence – is just too much for the wholly committed.
Events of recent weeks have eclipsed the memory of just how successful a politician Nicola Sturgeon was for over eight years. Her calm and self-assured presence proved to the liking of many Scots, even including diehard unionists. This was particularly true at the start of the Covid epidemic in the spring and summer of 2020. When the epidemic subsided, more and more people – both pro- and anti-independence – became aware of a sense of drift. By now, voters could recite the litany of failures in their sleep; NHS, transport – especially ferries – policing, schooling in the least prosperous areas.
A vast increase in higher education has failed to impact significantly on the low wage, low skill and low productivity that afflicts much of the country. On the contrary, higher education has become an industry and an interest group in itself; a major part of the economy in Scotland's cities and beyond; beneficial for a large minority, irrelevant to the rest. In this way, the scene was set for the upheaval which followed Nicola Sturgeon's resignation.
There can be little doubt that the independence cause will revive. Too few people in Scotland retain an active loyalty to the UK, and to the idea of being British, to prevent a resurgence. It may not do so quickly. Tom Devine has written of a generation before it becomes viable again. Since 2014, the SNP has excluded others from active involvement. The 'Yes Movement' has not prospered when confronted by a quietly hostile SNP. The SNP, even including Kate Forbes, is likely to be tainted by recent revelations, with the near certainty that others will follow soon. A clean break, which only time will permit, will be necessary.
A revived campaign will probably be led by somebody you and I have never heard of. This future campaign will be severely handicapped by decisions the SNP has already made in power at Holyrood. It has indulged many people as a means of securing their support for independence. This has created a mass of vested interests committed to the status quo and, in turn, hugely narrowed the scope for future radical action such as would attract support over and beyond 50%. The Union might be saved, or at minimum prolonged, by ill-thought out populist measures taken by the SNP between 2007 and 2023.
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